Recently, a colony of bees took up residence in the eaves of my housing complex. Fearing the prospect of some sort of insect attack, the housing administrators put up signs, roped off the area with yellow police tape and vowed to call an exterminator if the bees didn’t behave and find someplace else to live.
If ever there was a creature that needed an intervention from a public relations agency, the honey bee is it. We all remember the stern warnings from our parents, and then the intense pain of our first bee sting. We’ve heard horror stories of people with allergies who swell up like blimps from a sting, or even go into shock. There is the scary threat of “Africanized bees” (a foreign invasion!). It’s no wonder our first reaction to a hive is to reach for the spray can and kill as many bees as possible. These are pests that cannot be tolerated, the stuff of horror movies, for example Killer Bees(1974), The Swarm (1978) and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare (1995).
But here’s the real horror: humanity is inextricably dependent on these natural pollinators for our food supply; it is generally agreed that about one-third of human nutrition is due to bee pollination. And now, the survival of this essential species is in serious trouble. Since the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) emerged in 2006, U.S. beekeepers have lost an estimated 10 million beehives, nearly twice the normal rate of loss. Similar alarming losses of beehives are being reported in many other countries around the world. Something is killing the bees, and the impact could be very serious to the world’s food supply and healthy human nutrition.
Here are just a few sobering statistics from the USDA and Cornell University: In the United States, 100 percent of the almond crop, 90 percent of the broccoli crop, 81 percent of the sweet cherries and 72 percent of the grapefruit rely on bee pollination. Many other fruits and the alfalfa hay crops are similarly dependent on bee pollinators.
The beekeepers who annually truck their hives from the Midwest to California to time the arrival of bees to the flowering period of local crops are not able to keep healthy colonies and meet the demands of agriculture. In an industry that has grown ever efficient with advances in science and technology, our ability to feed the world is now in question because of the loss of the low-tech pollinators who carry out a simple natural function.
A 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture report on honey bee health acknowledged that bees are under serious threat, but failed to pinpoint a single cause. Instead, studies show there is likely a combination of factors that is weakening the colonies of these social creatures. The factors are interrelated and complex, including a parasitic mite that takes hold in a colony and kills the bees, a virus that makes the bees sick, and the loss of natural bee habitat and native flowering plants due to the monoculture of factory farms. Almost all cash crops are now genetically modified to be immune from the effect of Roundup herbicide, so farmers are free to use that spray to kill the milkweed, clover and wildflowers that lower their yields but provide natural food for the bees. Because of the lack of native flowers, bees in many locations are suffering from malnourishment.
But perhaps the most disturbing threat to the bees is the impact of neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticides that coat seeds, garden products and even pet flea collars. According to the Government Accountability Office, neonicotinoids were fast-tracked into use without the full battery of required environmental research. As of 2014, nearly all the corn seeds and a third of the soybean seeds planted in the United States were coated with these insecticides, and the drift of this fine dust at planting time is now identified as a threat to bees. Neonicotinoids are made from a synthetic nicotine and are particularly insidious. The chemical attacks the nervous systems of insects, but has no impact on human or animals. It moves from the coated seed into the circulatory system and cells of plants, making the entire plant and its flowers permanently poisonous to insects. This can even be true of common home garden plants such as geraniums and petunias. The low-dose chemicals don’t kill the bees outright, but instead weaken and disorient them. They cannot navigate their ways back to their hives or do their work. They also suffer from weakened immune systems and are more susceptible to the threat of mites and viruses that are attacking the colonies.
We’ve heard this story before, but obviously have not learned our lesson. The systemic chemical threat to a species was famously documented in a 1962 book titled Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Her work led to the banning of DDT, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the awakening of the environmental movement. Carson described the death of birds on her property due to chemicals in the food chain, forcing people to consider the possibility of environmental calamity that would occur with the loss of bird species.
A modern-day Carson, British environmental and political activist George Monbiot, called neonicotinoids “the new DDT” in a column he wrote for The Guardian. He pointed to scientific studies that suggest the chemicals can persist in soil for up to 19 years, accumulating into a toxic brew. “What these pesticides do once they are in the soil, no one knows, as sufficient research has not been conducted,” wrote Monbiot. “But – deadly to all insects and possibly other species at tiny concentrations – they are likely to wipe out a high proportion of the soil fauna. Does this include earthworms? Or the birds and mammals that eat earthworms? Or for that matter, the birds and mammals that eat insects or treated seeds? We don’t yet know enough to say.”
Monbiot and others say we should sound a “Silent Spring” alarm as we envision a black and white future in which the flowering species of nature are no longer able to survive without the pollinators they depend upon.
The threat to bee survival is beginning to slowly make its way into the public’s consciousness. Last May, the White House held the first “pollinator summit” where President Obama called for Cabinet-level studies to determine the impact of chemical use, particularly neonicotinoids. And at a few garden shops, you might start even begin to see “no neonics” labels for plants grown without the use of these insecticides.
Bayer CropScience, the maker of many neonicotinoids, is countering by hiring Washington lobbyists, launching a “Bee Care Tour” campaign and opening a $2.5 million bee research center to fight the growing concern about the chemical threats to bees. The company says there is no conclusive evidence that CCD is related to neonicotinoids, and is attempting to head off a U.S. version of the moratorium on the use of the chemicals that was put in place in Europe last year. The financial stakes are high, with annual sales of the chemicals estimated at $686 million.
Can we afford several years of debates over the validity of divergent scientific studies and the inevitable wars between environmentalists and corporations? It’s a question that may be answered for us by nature. Colony Collapse Disorder could continue to accelerate, causing the kind of severe economic impact on agriculture that would overrule any attempt to keep the chemicals in use. We may be forced to ban the chemicals or risk the unthinkable possibility of seeing the extinction of some bee species. Alternately, the course of nature may turn in the other direction as bees evolve and adapt to whatever the causes are that threaten their survival.
I’d like to bet on the bees to make a comeback. But I fear they may be no match for the threats that mankind has concocted in the name of science and corporate profits.
Wikipedia article on bee-related horror films
Wikipedia article on CCD
Wikipedia article on neonicotinoids
Wikipedia article on Silent Spring
Wikipedia article on the importance of pollinators to humans
Four-part series on bees by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Neonicotinoids are the new DDT killing the natural world” by George Monbiot